Thoreau, Henry David
Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862
(Born David Henry Thoreau) American essayist, poet, and translator. See also Walden Criticism.
Thoreau has earned a reputation as one of the great nonfiction prose stylists in American letters, but he is seldom admired for his poetry. The approximately three hundred poems Thoreau produced mostly were written early in his life, and they are generally considered to be second-rate and interesting only for their youthful sense of urgency, the biographical insight they provide into their author, and as a gloss to the prose. Thoreau's poems express many of the concerns seen in his essays—love of nature, mystical insight into truth, social injustice—and also give voice to his psychological and artistic expectations and disappointments, and explain his understanding of the role of the poet and the nature of inspiration. In fact, some poems indicate that Thoreau found poetry not to be the best vehicle to express his ideas, which he thought were better explained in the concrete language of prose. To be sure, many critics have pointed out, there are occasional touches of originality and insight in Thoreau's poetry, but most agree it is uneven in quality and does not compare to the witty, sparkling prose displayed in works such as Walden.
Thoreau, christened David Henry Thoreau, was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817, to a family of modest means. His father, John, was a shopkeeper who had a string of unsuccessful businesses before establishing a profitable pencil factory, and his mother, Cynthia, supplemented the family income by keeping a boarding house. As a child, Thoreau enjoyed the beauty of the woods in Concord and excelled at grammar school. He was the only child in the family to receive a college education, attending Harvard College from 1833 to 1837 and graduating near the top of his class. After Harvard he taught briefly at the Concord public schools, but was dismissed after a few weeks because of his opposition to using corporal punishment to discipline students. Unable to find another teaching job, Thoreau, with his brother John, opened a private school, which became known for its progressive educational methods based on the teachings of the American Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott. He also began writing essays and published poetry in The Dial, Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalist literary magazine.
In 1841, Thoreau and his brother closed down their school, primarily because of John's ill health. The same year, Emerson invited Thoreau to live with his family as a handyman. Thoreau accepted, seeing it as a perfect opportunity to write and earn his keep. At Emerson's home he met some of the greatest figures in American Transcendentalism, including George Ripley and Margaret Fuller. Thoreau also studied Hindu scriptures, continued to contribute poems and essays to The Dial, and occasionally helped to edit the magazine. In 1842, his brother John died, leaving Thoreau devastated. He moved to New York the following year, but returned to Concord in 1844. In 1845 he moved to Walden Pond, on Emerson's property, where he stayed for two years and wrote much of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. It was during this period that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to Massachusetts in opposition to slavery and the Mexican War. After returning from Walden Pond, Thoreau supported himself by working again as Emerson's handyman and then as a surveyor. In the early 1850s Thoreau began to feel as if he had not fulfilled his literary calling, but the 1854 publication of Walden and its enthusiastic reception, particularly in Transcendentalist circles, restored his confidence. The moderate succes of Walden also made it easier for Thoreau to publish his essays in more popular periodicals. Throughout the 1850s Thoreau traveled and lectured widely on conservation of natural resources and spoke publicly against slavery. Because had been sickly for much of his life, when Thoreau developed tuberculosis in 1860 he was too weak to fully recover from his illness. He died in Concord on May 6, 1862.
During his lifetime, Thoreau published essays, poems, and translations of Greek and Roman poetry in various periodicals, including the Atlantic Monthly, Putnams, and The Dial. The only two full-length books he saw into print were A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. The first of these is a narrative with meditative essays and poems that recounts Thoreau's 1839 boat trip with his brother John. Thoreau's masterpiece, Walden, a group of essays that recounts his stay at Walden Pond, also has verses interspersed with the prose.
Thoreau likely began writing seriously poetry in 1837, when he was twenty years old, and continued until 1850. His most prolific poetic period of was between 1838 and 1844. Of the approximately three hundred poems he composed, eighty-five were published in his lifetime in periodicals (sometimes as part of an essay) and in the longer prose works. The first collection of Thoreau's poetry, Poems of Nature, edited by Henry S. Salt and Frank B. Sanborn, appeared posthumously in 1895. Several poems were included in the collected editions of Thoreau's work that appeared in 1894 and 1906, and a handful also appeared in his other books of essays. Carl Bode's 1943 scholarly edition, The Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, was the first comprehensive volume of Thoreau's poetry. An enlarged edition thirteen with newly discovered pieces appeared in 1964.
Thoreau maintained that the function of the poet was to reveal the truth about nature, and many of his best poems are contemplations on the natural world. He seems to have been especially moved by foggy and misty landscapes, as evidenced in “Haze” and “Fog.” These poems also have an element of mysticism as they take the form of supplication to objects whose meaning the poet seeks to understand. Thoreau's most famous poem is probably the ten-line meditation “Smoke,” which appears in the “House-Warming” chapter of Walden. In it, Thoreau reflects on the smoke rising at dawn above the hamlet and likens it to the defiant lcarus of classical mythology. The poet is like the flame and the smoke the poem that is sent upward to God. However, the poem does not clarify the truth of God's sun as the poet had hoped, but serves only to blot it out. Other poems that reveal Thoreau's attitude toward poetry deal with the subject of inspiration. In “Inspiration” the poet laments that the sensitivity he feels toward the world when he is inspired cannot be translated untainted into action. In “The Poet's Delay” and “I am a Parcel of Vain Striving Tied” (also called “Sic Vita”) Thoreau expresses his sense of the artist's—and indeed his own—limitations in a world of infinite wonder. Other themes that appear in Thoreau's poems include human relationships (“Sympathy,” “Friendship,” “Love”), mystical experience (“Bluebird”), freedom (“Independence”), and the transitory nature of life (“Autumn”).
Thoreau is perceived as a poet of limited achievement, but his poems have been the subject of some discussion by critics because of what they reveal about Thoreau the man and artist. In his own day, Thoreau managed to publish a good many of his poems, although they were not read much outside a small circle of New England Transcendentalists. The early poem “Sympathy” drew praise from Emerson as “the purest strain, and the loftiest, I think that has yet pealed from this unpoetic American forest.” But Emerson's enthusiasm soon cooled, and his final assessment of his friend's verses was that they were sometimes crude and showed that his “genius was better than his talent.” Thoreau's poetry received scant attention after he died, and even the 1895 volume Poems of Nature elicited no sustained critical commentary. It was only after the publication of Carl Bode's 1943 edition of the Collected Poems that Thoreau's poetry began to be discussed by critics. The first serious assessment came in Henry Wells' 1945 essay, “An Evaluation of Thoreau's Poetry,” which noted Thoreau's classical influences and admired the poems for their breadth of vision. Since then, other critics have offered the verses measured praise while acknowledging their limitations and chiefly biographical interest. Commentaries on the poems have tended to point out Thoreau's indebtedness to the poets of antiquity and the seventeenth-century English Metaphysical poets, the role of epiphany and inspiration in the verses, and their themes of freedom and rebellion. Some critics also argue that, since many of the poems appear with the essays, they should not be considered as entities in themselves but are best seen as illuminating the prose. They would, then, agree with Thoreau's own assessment of himself when he wrote: “My life has been the poem I would have writ, / But I could not both live and utter it.”
Poems of Nature 1895
The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 20 vols. (essays, journals, letters, and poetry) 1906
Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau 1943
Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, Revised Edition 1964
*“Resistance to Civil Government” (essay) 1849
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (essays) 1849
“Slavery in Massachusetts” (essay) 1854
Walden, Or A Life in the Woods (essays) 1854
“A Plea for Captain John Brown” (essay) 1860
“Walking” (essay) 1862
Excursions (essays) 1863
“Life Without Principle” (essay) 1863
The Maine Woods (essays) 1864
Cape Cod (essays) 1865
A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (essays) 1866
Early Spring in Massachusetts (essay) 1881
Autumn (essay) 1884
Summer (essay) 1884
Winter (essay) 1884
Journal. 14 vols. 1949
The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau 1958
*Published in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau and elsewhere as “Civil Disobedience.”
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SOURCE: “Thoreau,” in Thoreau as Seen By His Contemporaries, edited by Walter Harding, Dover Publications, 1960, pp. 26-8.
[In the following excerpt from his essay on the life of Thoreau, originally published in the Atlantic Monthlyin 1862, Emerson says his friend's verses were “often rude and defective.”]
His poetry might be bad or good; he no doubt wanted a lyric facility and technical skill, but he had the source of poetry in his spiritual perception. He was a good reader and critic, and his judgment on poetry was to the ground of it. He could not be deceived as to the presence or absence of the poetic element in any composition, and his thirst for this made him negligent and perhaps scornful of superficial graces. He would pass by many delicate rhythms, but he would have detected every live stanza or line in a volume, and he knew very well where to find an equal poetic charm in prose. He was so enamored of the spiritual beauty that he held all actual written poems in very light esteem in the comparison. He admired Aeschylus and Pindar; but, when some one was commending them, he said that “Aeschylus and the Greeks, in describing Apollo and Orpheus, had given no song, or no good one. They ought not to have moved trees, but to have chanted to the gods such a hymn as would have sung all their old ideas out of their heads, and new ones in.” His own verses are often rude and defective....
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SOURCE: “Thoreau and the Organic Principle in Poetry,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 53, No. 1, March 1938, pp. 286-302.
[In the following essay, Lorch examines Thoreau's organic theory of poetry, noting its importance in his poetic credo.]
I. THOREAU AND ORGANIC EXPRESSION
Studies of Henry David Thoreau as a man of letters have led primarily to an examination of his attitude toward nature, society, government, and religion, and, on the purely literary side, of his style. His theory of the art of poetry has received less emphatic attention, perhaps because Thoreau wrote very little verse, because he failed to embody his theory in any formal discourse, and because it is commonly assumed that in the main his theories coincide with those of Emerson. Nevertheless, Thoreau was deeply interested in the theory of poetry. His utterances concerning it may be found in every volume of his writings and would, if brought together, comprise a noteworthy body of poetic theory.
What, in general, was Thoreau's conception of the art of poetry? Like Emerson, he sought its true basis in truth, goodness, and beauty. These three are not to be thought of as separate elements sharing integrally in the production of art, but simply as different modes of expression reflecting the divine Mind. To be truly beautiful a work of art must not only...
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SOURCE: “Henry Thoreau as a Versifier,” in The New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1943, p. 30.
[In the following review of Carl Bode's 1943 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, Hellman says the volume does not establish Thoreau as a very important poet—despite the poems' “occasional sparks of divine fire.”]
In collecting and editing well over 300 pieces of Thoreau's verse—some of them fragmentary, others of as many as twenty stanzas—Dr. Carl Bode has placed lovers and students of New England's most individualistic philosopher under a considerable debt. Not that the volume establishes Thoreau as a very important poet—and this, despite occasional sparks of the divine fire. The value of these verses lies foremost in the man himself, and as he was one of the greatest of Americans, here one naturally finds pearls of greatness of thought over which many ripples of wit and waves of wisdom flow in quiet—though often obstructed—beauty.
Years before he died Thoreau realized that prose was his métier, and he almost entirely, if not wholly, ceased to write poetry. “My life,” he had said, “has been the poem I would have writ, But I could not both live and utter it.” Yet in the rhymes already set down in journals or on scraps of paper, Thoreau had indeed uttered much of his life; and it is the autobiography of his verses that is most engaging and...
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SOURCE: “An Evaluation of Thoreau's Poetry,” in Thoreau: A Century of Criticism, edited by Walter Harding, Southern Methodist University Press, 1954, pp. 150-61.
[In the following essay, Wells contends that Thoreau's verse is that of an independent young man, but also notes his myriad influences and asserts that Thoreau's greatest poetic strength was his breadth of vision.]
Eighty-one years after the death of Henry Thoreau has appeared under the careful editorship of Carl Bode the first edition of Thoreau's verse to provide an adequate view of his poetical attainments. The story is, to say the least, unusual. One recalls that eighty years is more than twice the time required to give due appreciation to the lyric art of Emily Dickinson. At last we are able to arrive at a critical estimate of Thoreau's place in American poetry and to speculate upon how much influence his poems, now that they are fairly available, may exercise.
The long period of tepid praise or total silence has been occasioned not only by inadequate publicity but by inadequate criticism and understanding. He himself gradually yielded to the pressure of circumstances and, as years advanced, largely deserted verse for prose. His poems were commonly accused of rawness and lack of poetical refinement. Whatever their faults, they were not vulgar. The middle-class emotionalism and false optimism, monotonous rhythms and...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau's Collected Poems,” in American Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 1945, pp. 260-67.
[In the following review of Carl Bode's 1943 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, Allen points out minor textual inaccuracies in the volume but in general finds Bode's edition otherwise to be a fine scholarly effort.]
In reviewing in November, 1943, the Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode, American Literature gave the book the commendation it so richly deserved, but, except at a single point, did not consider it critically in detail. I hope it is not too late for a few more critical remarks about this admirable but not impeccable piece of work.
A few weeks ago a member of the staff of the Library of Congress asked me whether I thought the poem “Carpe Diem,” printed over the signature H. T. in the Boatswain's Whistle for November 16, 1864, was really written by Thoreau, as some persons had assumed. I had to say in reply that it did not sound like Thoreau to me and that the initials H. T. seemed to be evidence against that ascription rather than for it, since Thoreau always used his middle initial D. in his signature. I then learned that Dr. Bode had included the poem in his collection, and I consulted the book to learn what evidence he had. Here I found that “Carpe Diem,” so far as known, had been printed only in that ephemeral...
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SOURCE: “Rejoinder,” in American Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 1945, pp. 267-69.
[In the following response to Francis Allen's review of his 1943 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, Bode agrees that the poem “Carpe Diem” is not from Thoreau's hand, but says that many of the textual inaccuracies that Allen suggested be fixed reflect Thoreau's own errors, which Bode sought to preserve as a matter of literary and historical record.]
I am sincerely grateful to Mr. Allen for his interest in the Collected Poems, and it is pleasant indeed to have an opportunity to acknowledge that fact. When, in time to come, I prepare a second edition, I shall be glad to bear in mind the points he has raised. Actually, all I should want to do in the ordinary course of events is merely to evaluate and accept his corrections and not to write any general rejoinder whatsoever. The most important items in his letter, though, are not concerned with errors of fact but instead with much broader issues. These have to do with editorial principles and the theory of editing. Consequently, with all appreciation for Mr. Allen's detailed analysis of my production, I feel I must say a word about those basic editorial issues involved.
If T[horeau] really wrote “an waking,” it seems regrettable that the “an” couldn't have been quietly changed to “a,” as in the printed...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau's ‘Smoke,'” in The Explicator, Vol. 17, No. 7, April 1959, Item 47.
[In the following note, Rodabaugh contends the “flame” in the last line of the poem “Smoke” is another indication of Thoreau's paganism.]
The last two lines of “Smoke,” by Henry Thoreau, embody the author's characteristic paganism. F. O. Matthiessen points out (American Renaissance, p. 166), that “clear flame” includes in its meaning the flame of Thoreau's own spirit—so confident and firm that it approaches hubris. Such a reading is supported by the poem's context, which is the entire book Walden. I wish to go further and suggest reasons why the literal flame, the one in Thoreau's fireplace, is a clear flame. In using this expression Thoreau may be asserting once again his contention that it is not man's business to worship, in any ordinary sense, the Deity; that is, the significance of “clear” may be that there is here no burnt offering, no obeisance to the gods.
The concluding lines with their imperatives “go” and “ask” are of dominant importance in the one-sentence poem. Everything else is preparatory—examining, with minuteness, smoke as a phenomenon. We are caused to brood upon it as a boy or a savage would brood. The solemn pillar we focus our attention on still arouses, here in Concord Township, whatever thoughts it aroused in aboriginal...
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SOURCE: “A New Thoreau Poem—‘To Edith,'” in The Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 16, 1960, pp. 40-1.
[In the following essay, Cameron maintains that the verses written to Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter, Edith, were actually written by Thoreau.]
When Edith Emerson was born on November 22, 1841, her father wrote in his journals:1 “Edith. There came into the house a young maiden, but she seemed to be more than a thousand years old. She came into the house naked and helpless, but she had for her defence more than the strength of millions. She brought into the day the manners of the Night.” These lines reflect Emerson's thoughts on infancy expressed in the last chapter of Nature (1836) and the doctrine of the “Lapse” expressed in Wordsworth's “Ode on Intimations of Immortality.” They remind the reader of the faith of Bronson Alcott, expressed in his two manuscripts labelled “Psyche,” from one of which I have published generous extracts.2
Even before Edith's birth,3 Thoreau had become a resident in Emerson's home, serving as a handy man. He had daily association with Edith until May 1, 1843, when he left for Staten Island, witnessing the first seventeen months of her growth. That he became fond of her is evident in his report on January 24, 1843, to Emerson, who was lecturing in Philadelphia:4 “… Edith takes rapid strides in...
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SOURCE: “An Unpublished Thoreau Poem,” in American Literature, Vol. 34, No. 1, March 1962, pp. 119-21.
[In the following essay, White offers a previously unpublished text of an early Thoreau poem and discusses its similarities to works by Thomas Gray and John Milton.]
In Appendix B of the Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau (Chicago, 1943) Carl Bode refers to poems he could not find, among them “Life is a Summer's Day,” an “original autograph manuscript poem, probably unpublished, of eleven stanzas of triplets, written in ink on both sides of [a] quarto sheet, with alterations and emendations in the hand of the author; unsigned. Dated July 2, 1837.” And he quotes from the sale catalogue of the Stephen H. Wakeman Collection (New York, 1924, item number 978) the three opening lines:
Life is a summer's day, When as it were for ay, We sport and play.
Three stanzas and the second page of the manuscript of the poem appear in the catalogue of the Parke-Bernet Galleries, October 17, 1961. Otherwise the poem has not been published. The manuscript is now owned by Mr. Charles E. Feinberg of Detroit and is printed here with his permission.
The poem is dated, following the last line, “July 2d—37,” a few weeks before Thoreau's graduation from Harvard in August. In the spring of 1837 Thoreau wrote a poem beginning, “I am a...
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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1963)
SOURCE: “Making the Forest Poetic,” in Times Literary Supplement, 1963.
[In the following review of Carl Bode's 1964 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, the reviewer notes the poems' literary indebtedness to the seventeenth-century English poets, particularly George Herbert.]
Professor Carl Bode's edition of Henry Thoreau's poems was first published in 1943, and it was at once acknowledged that the editor had done his work very well indeed. He had searched widely and thoroughly to bring together all the verse he could find, in print and manuscript, and both his textual and general notes could hardly have been bettered. The edition has long been out of print, and the editor has now taken the chance of a new edition to add thirteen poems which have come to light since 1943. They have been printed as an appendix—an unsatisfactory and ungainly expedient, though it may have helped to keep down the cost of what is already rather an expensive book.
The admirer of Thoreau will, however, gladly pay to own all of his poems, not because he believes that he gave more than a glimpse of his genius in verse, but for the sake of the insight they allow into his character and sensibility. His achievement is not, however, to be decried; in a sense, the strain he uttered was, as Emerson claimed, the “purest and...
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SOURCE: A review of collected poems in The New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters, Vol. 37, No. 3, September 1964, pp. 393-97.
[In the following review of Carl Bode's enlarged 1964 edition of Thoreau's Collected Poems, Gozzi contends that Bode's first volume has done much to elevate the perception of Thoreau as a poet.]
The Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau was the first variorum edition of an American poet when issued in 1943. This is a reprinting of that out-of-print 385-page 1943 edition, with some 25 new pages added at the end. Its title-page description of “Enlarged Edition” is therefore more proper than the ambiguous “New Enlarged Edition” of the dust jacket. The volume is actually an old edition, slightly enlarged. The reprinted part has not been reworked. Probably the publishers felt—correctly, I believe—that not enough changes were needed to justify resetting costs.
The new material consists of a short preface, thirteen poems, textual and explanatory notes, and an appendix and index to the added poems. In the appendix, Professor Bode subtracts two poems from the Thoreau canon, on evidence offered by Francis Allen and Kenneth Cameron in articles published since 1943. (Unfortunately, these poems still appear in the reprinted main body of the work.) In this new appendix the editor also adds the name of one poem to those...
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SOURCE: “The Concept of Inspiration in Thoreau's Poetry,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 79, No. 4, Part 1, September 1964, pp. 466-72.
[In the following essay, Williams explores the importance in Thoreau's poetry of the idea of inspiration, and argues that he did not find poetry a substantial enough medium to give voice to his idea of spiritual beauty.]
The great majority of Thoreau's poems bear in some way on the subject of inspiration: on the conditions of its induction, the description of its progression, the feeling and value of the vision it gives, or the lament for its absence. A study of inspiration in Thoreau's poetry throws new light on his poetic structures, themes, and image patterns, and perhaps offers ground for comment on why Thoreau dropped verse for prose almost entirely quite early in his writing career.
Inspiration to Thoreau meant apparently what it did to Emerson—“leaning on the secret augury.”1 In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers Thoreau characterizes inspiration as a stream “which bubbles out, now here, now there, now in this man, now in that,”2 thus tying his concept to transcendental theories of the outflow of power from causative Nature to the receptive individual. Thoreau's poem “Inspiration” is his fullest statement about the concept. This poem is largely devoted to...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau's Poetry and the Prose Works,” in ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, No. 56, 1969, pp. 40-52.
[In the following essay, Evans maintains that Thoreau's poetry and prose are linked, and so to consider the poems as individual entities diminishes Thoreau's stature as an artist.]
Despite Carl Bode's critical edition of Thoreau's complete poetry, with a brief introduction (1943) and a critical article by Henry W. Wells, “An Evaluation of Thoreau's Poetry,” the following year, little has been added to our appreciation and understanding of Thoreau as a poet since the pronouncements of Emerson,1 who at first thought highly of Thoreau's achievement. To Carlyle he explained that Thoreau's was “the purest strain, and the loftiest … that has yet pealed from this unpoetic American forest;” yet, by 1841, he had changed his mind. According to Bode, “his enthusiasm had begun to cool,”2 and certainly Emerson and Margaret Fuller, who were then editing the Dial, either returned Thoreau's verses for revision or rejected them out of hand. Thoreau's poetic fervor did not last much longer. He was to complain that the muse visited him less and less often, and by 1849, when the Week was published, he was to incorporate many of the poems that had appeared in the Dial into the prose work. By the time of publication of Walden in 1854 his lyric...
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SOURCE: “A Note on Thoreau's Mist Verse,” in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, July 1, 1969, pp. 1-5.
[In the following essay, Fleck analyzes Thoreau's use of misty, foggy landscapes in his verse.]
Within the works of Henry David Thoreau one finds ample description of and commentary on mist and haze. Whether in the form of damp and dense fog or in shimmering rays of heat, mist and haze created for Thoreau an ethereal effect. All recognizable landscape became transformed and paradisiacal and stimulated his poetic imagination into new realms. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers Thoreau describes the misty summit of Mount Greylock in the Berkshires of Massachusetts: “All around beneath me was spread for a hundred miles on every side, as far as the eye could reach, an undulating country of clouds, answering in the varied swell of its surface to the terrestrial world it veiled. It was such a country as we might see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise.”1 As he and his brother John sailed down the Merrimack River, they frequently witnessed the entrancing effects of fog pierced by an early morning sun: “We passed the mouth of Penichook Brook, a wild salmon-stream, in the fog, without seeing it. At length the sun's rays struggled through the mist and showed us the pines on shore dripping with dew, and springs trickling from the moist banks.”2...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau's Rebellious Lyric,” in ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, No 54, 1969, pp. 27-30.
[In the following essay, Glazier offers a close reading of the poem “Light-winged Smoke,” discussing elements of rebellion evident in its free form, imagery, and central figure of the defiant lcarus of classical mythology.]
It is true of Thoreau's small lyric, “Light-winged Smoke” as it is true of any poem which is unified and organic, that the proper avenue to the argument is through an analysis of its texture. When Emerson remarked, “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem,” he was writing about the process of composition, not about the ritual of analysis, a distinction attested to by his quick injunction that “the thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.” Emerson was not denigrating metres. On the contrary, he was, rather, defining organic poetry, where an argument is “metre-making,” so that thought and form in the finished poem are coeval.
One may even doubt Emerson's wisdom in placing argument first in the order of composition, for quite likely texture creates argument fully as often as argument creates texture. In fact, the organic process which Emerson praised suggests exactly such a phenomenon, as Coleridge well knew: “The organic form … is...
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SOURCE: “Correspondence in Thoreau's Nature Poetry,” in ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, No. 58, 1st Quarter 1970, pp. 101-09.
[In the following essay, Dennis contends that Thoreau views nature not as a benevolent force to be succumbed to, but an emblem or type of language that is to be actively scrutinized and interpreted.]
Although Thoreau wrote perhaps only a handful of first-rate poems, he follows Emerson in regarding poetry as one of the noblest activities of man, and in his poetry he often tries to embody attitudes which his prose states only theoretically. This connection between theory and practice applies especially to his conception of nature. His poems are by and large nature poems because in them he tries to explore the theories about mind and nature which lie at the center of works like Walden and A Week. A study of his poetry, therefore, is a good way of testing one's interpretation of his prose. Moreover, concentrating on the poetry encourages the reader to place Thoreau's work in the context of poetic tradition and thus helps him to understand with more precision the distinctiveness of Thoreau's conception of nature. The most immediately relevant body of poetry here is that of the British Romantics, especially the work of Coleridge and Wordsworth, which is also dominated by a concern with defining man's relation to nature. What one discovers when a comparison...
(The entire section is 6182 words.)
SOURCE: The Poetry of Henry David Thoreau, Transcendtal Books, 1970, pp. 4-24.
[In the following essay, Ford offers an analysis of the themes, imagery, and structure of the poems.]
The ultimate experience for Thoreau was a complete destruction of the division between himself and that outside himself, a unification—or reunification—of all elements of existence. Whereas Emerson talked of a soul reaching out and becoming one with the non-physical Oversoul, Thoreau described a more tangible oneness with physical nature. Emerson used nature as a vehicle to the Ideal; Thoreau, the sensualist, acknowledged this use but became too intimate with nature to leave the body for the soul. Thoreau's ultimate experience then is for the body to be taken literally into the trees, the sounds of the birds, the streams, and the ponds. Although recognizing the physical impossibility of such an act, Thoreau insisted that through this experience he could both transcend the senses and remain part of them. This ambiguous experience is the ideal toward which he strove in his poetry, using the related devices of contrast, paradox, and punning as means of approaching it. His recurrent themes stress conflicting ideas—one stretching out for this experience and the other holding back; his favorite images support this conflict as he struggles toward union; and his structural devices set up...
(The entire section is 12580 words.)
SOURCE: “Finding a Voice: Thoreau's Pentameters,” in ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, No. 60, Summer 1970, pp. 67-72.
[In the following essay, Lane offers a close reading of two 1850 poems, “Tall Ambrosia” and “Among the Worst of Men.”]
In the late summer of 1850, around August 31, Henry Thoreau copied or composed in his manuscript journal two poems in iambic pentameter verse.1 These poems or parts of poems—for two journal pages are missing before the first, and after a paragraph of prose Thoreau tried to continue the second—are as they stand, Thoreau's most successful in this form. They also much resemble Robert Frost's narrative and meditative lyrics—so much so that one wonders if Frost's poetic development were not, somehow, directly nourished by these poems, which, in Bode's text but with normalized punctuation and orthography, are as follows:
Among the worst of men that ever lived, However, we did seriously attend, A little space we let our thoughts ascend, Experienced our religion, and confessed 'Twas good for us to be there— be anywhere. Then to a heap of apples we addressed And cleared the topmost rider sine care, But our Icarian thoughts returned to ground, And we went on to heaven the long way round.
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SOURCE: “Thoreau's Poem #189: An Emended Reading,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. 33, No. 1, November 1970, pp. 10-12.
[In the following essay, Mattfield maintains Thoreau could not have intended many of the spellings that appear in his original “Poem #189,” and suggests a revised version of the poem.]
“Poem No. 189”
For though the caves were rabitted, And the well sweeps were slanted, Each house seemed not inhabited But haunted.
The pensive traveler held his way, Silent & melancholy, For every man an ideot was, And every house a folly.
VERSION USED IN ANTHOLOGY
For though the caves were rabbited And the well sweeps were slanted, Each house seemed not inhabited But haunted.
The pensive traveller held his way, Silent and melancholy, For every man an idiot was, And every house a folly.
For though the eaves were rabbeted And the well sweeps were slanted, Each house...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau's Poetics,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer 1971, pp. 74-81.
[In the following essay, Colquitt suggests that Thoreau's judgments about the poet's experience hampered his success as a writer of verses.]
“Yes, I've seen her poetry Interesting if one is interested in Celia, Apart, of course, from its literary merit Which I don't pretend to judge.”
—“The Cocktail Party”
Edward Chamberlayne's judgment on his mistress' poetry reflects with accuracy the critical verdict on the poetry of Thoreau: his poetry is interesting if one is interested in Thoreau as man and as writer of prose. Its literary merit, which a number of critics from Thoreau's time to our own have pretended to judge, has been found negligible.1 Though there are some exceptions, the critical attitudes may be represented by George Ripley's comment in his review of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that “Nearly every page is instinct with genuine Poetry except those wherein verse is haltingly attempted, which are for the most part sorry prose,” and by Fanny Hardy Eckstrom's later review of this book, “Judged by ordinary standards, he was a poet who failed.” In his elegiac tribute to Thoreau, Emerson expresses a similar judgment, describing Thoreau as wanting “a lyric facility and technical skill” and as creating verses...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau and Poetry,” in Henry David Thoreau, edited by Walter Harding, George Brenner and Paul A. Doyle, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1972, pp. 103-16.
[In the following essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture at a festival honoring Thoreau, the poet Rukeyser asserts that Thoreau's poems are “suburban in relation to the forest of the prose” and compares Thoreau to Sir Walter Raleigh.]
Thoreau, whom we come to honor, speaks to us today. You have been hearing, seeing the traces of Thoreau in our own time. I imagine much of what I am going to say to you may be recapitulation. But I want to recapitulate for you, from this place where I stand, the effort of a person, in conscious life, to make something that can flash again and again with an integral moment in its flashing. Thoreau speaks to us of the great difficulty of our own lives to pull themselves into that integrity, speaks in that flash of reality which is the present moment always, which is now, which is the only real, and of which Thoreau was deeply conscious.
I do not know how you have been hearing about him. You have heard from people whose lives are deep in his work and life. Professor Harding, whose work one must know to find this, is here, and Mr. Feinberg, whose work has helped to make this possible, and Carl Bode, who made the poems available and remade the edition of the poems. Many...
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SOURCE: “Structure in the Poetry of Thoreau,” in Costerus, Vol. 6, 1972, pp. 137-54.
[In the following essay, Sampson argues that much of Thoreau's poetry has the structure reminiscent of the meditative tradition of seventeenth-century poetry.]
Thoreau's reputation as a major American writer has not depended upon his poetry. Although Emerson, in an article on “New Poetry” in The Dial for October 1840, recognized him as an important writer, he classified Thoreau as a “portfolio” poet whose greatness lay in the future; and later Emerson advised him to burn his poetry. Eighty-one years passed from the time of Thoreau's death until a collected edition of his poetry appeared. And in spite of the general availability of the poems in Carl Bode's 1943 edition and then in the 1964 enlarged edition, little serious attention has been given to these works.
Nor has critical evaluation of his poetry varied much over the decades. Bartholow Crawford recorded that although the prose works have received praise, “the literary world has, however, been of one mind in relegating to an inferior position most of Thoreau's verse.”1 Writing twenty-seven years later, Walter Harding expresses the same verdict: “Thoreau can hardly be considered a major poet.” And his judgment is unequivocal: “… most of his poetry is bad poetry.”2 And...
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SOURCE: “The Sluggard Knight in Thoreau's Poetry,” in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 2, April 1973, pp. 6-9.
[In the following essay, Silverman maintains that Thoreau's “sluggard knights” in his poems suffer conflicts between their desire for heroic self-assertion and their lazy natures.]
Many of Thoreau's poems record his effort to unite thought and action or, as he put it, to live deliberately. Surprisingly often, the effort seems to leave Thoreau depressed not elated, stirred less by morning courage than by midnight Angst. Several poems start with declarations of impotence: “In vain I see the morning rise”; “I am the autumnal sun”; “I am a parcel of vain strivings. …” Often the voice in the poems is not Pan's but Prufrock's.
Not only the deflated tone calls attention to these poems. They also present a special organization. To dramatize the transcendental problem of thought and action, Thoreau drew with a sort of brooding regularity on the same two features of the Concord landscape—smoke, and distant sounds. Repeatedly, distant sound—such as the faroff clang of a forge—declares man laboring for his bread, action; smoke—as from a chimney—declares man inactive by his hearth, thought. On each image Thoreau based a group of distinctively shaped poems. Those on smoke, haze, fog, and other diaphanous substances all have the same form: the...
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SOURCE: “Notes from ‘Chrysalis': Some Glimpses of Thoreau's Poetry,” in Studies In American Literature: Essays in Honour of William Mulder, edited by Jagdish Chander and Narindar S. Pradhan, Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 183-93.
[In the following essay, Srinath claims Thoreau's poetry reveals a “vehement originality” that ignores the existence of his predecessors and contemporaries and comes closer to the English Metaphysicals for its terse quality.]
It may not be surprising for a student of American Transcendentalism to see how true to its spirit the writers were even in the choice of their medium, their chief medium being prose. There is perhaps a Yankee practicality in that choice but it would have been difficult to imagine a movement like the Transcendental not producing any poetry at all however intensely poetic their prose itself might have been. Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, to mention only the three most important writers of the period, wrote verse, though the reputation of none of them rests today on poetry. This may be attributed, without taking it too far, partly to the fiery urgency of the Transcendentalists to have a dialogue with men around (preaching and lecturing at the Lyceum were the most effective means of planting the Transcendental wild oats). But Thoreau did not care much for society and the reason for his choice of prose as a better medium is personal and...
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SOURCE: “The Conditions for Poetry: A Study of Thoreau's Challenge to Transcendence,” in The American Benedictine Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 1977, pp. 188-200.
[In the following essay, Hansen claims Thoreau's poetic philosophy reveals an artist engaged in the task of writing poetry and metapoetry simultaneously.]
In many of his works, Thoreau expresses his concern with the poet. He uses the word poet in the sense of seer, the vates of the Romans, to write about himself, with poet providing a useful objective persona.
When Thoreau writes of the conditions in which the poet must live, the attitudes he must foster, or the results he must produce, he is giving less of prescription than description of his own inner life. “Poetry” is thus seen by him in its largest sense, as Maritain defines it, “not (as) the particular art which consists in writing verses, but a process more general and more primary: that intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human Self which is a kind of divination.”1
By extracting passages on the poet and poetry from Thoreau's works, one discovers focal ideas which imply two levels of engagement: first, while Thoreau did not supply his readers with an orderly theory of poetry as literature, he worked continuously at defining the conditions in which a written poetry might be...
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SOURCE: “‘'Converging With the Sky'”: The Imagery of Celestial Bodies in Thoreau's Poetry,” in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3, July 1977, pp. 15-28.
[In the following essay, Kaiser surveys the celestial imagery of Thoreau's poetry and concludes the inconsistencies in his view stems from “unavoidable conflicts” in Thoreau's world.]
Celestial bodies pervade Thoreau's verse as symbols of spiritual facts. Thoreau sees heavenly bodies in a new way; by using a naturalist's careful observation of their peculiarities, he develops the symbolic significance of the heavens beyond the usual Romantic associations: “The sun which I know is not Apollo, nor is the evening star Venus,”1 he writes in the Journal. In Thoreau's hands celestial phenomena become companions of the spirit (“And tread of high-souled men go by, / Their thoughts conversing with the sky,”2) and ultimately instruments of it (“Ye stars my spear-heads in the sky, / My arrow-tips ye are.” 
In the poem entitled “Walden,” Thoreau uses the image of the sun, moon and stars conversing with Walden Pond to show Walden's communion with the transcendent, and also to express the individuality of the heavenly creatures. The stars move in “troops,”  their characteristic appearance in the poetry. They are fixed in predetermined arrangements; they may wander the...
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SOURCE: “Rags and Meanness: Journals, Early Essays, Translations, and Poems,” in Dark Thoreau, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, pp. 1-26.
[In the following excerpt from his study of Thoreau's works, Bridgman claims Thoreau's early essays, translations, and poems are highly personal.]
Much of what Thoreau felt in his early years is concentrated in his poems and journals. They initiate the terms of his confusions and they help to explain both the violence and the evasions present in his writing. On the positive side, he idealized friendship and exulted in the diversity of nature. On the negative, he discovered little that was attractive in himself or in the social realities around him, and so dwelt obsessively on viciousness, destruction, and dissolution. Given these strained conditions, absorption in nature was a relief from quotidian irritations, not to say from himself. He once testified passionately: “I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. … In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness” (Journal, IV, 445). However, Thoreau suffered from the transcendental dilemma: nature wore the colors of the spirit; the world could but reflect his moods. “Packed in my mind lie all the clothes / Which outward nature wears” (Poems, 74). And although he enjoyed periods of authentic happiness, he also suffered moments of the utmost grimness, when he...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau's Poem ‘Sympathy': His ‘Gentle Boy' Identified,” in The Concord Saunterer, Vol. 18, No. 2, December 1985, pp. 20-7.
[In the following essay, Pitts argues that the “gentle boy” of the poem “Sympathy” is Thoreau himself.]
On June 24, 1839, when Henry David Thoreau was almost twenty-two years old, he wrote this now famous poem in his Journal:1
Lately alas I knew a gentle boy, Whose features all were cast in Virtue's mould, As one she had designed for Beauty's toy, But after manned him for her own stronghold.
On every side he open was as day, That you might see no lack of strength within, For walls and ports do only serva alway For a pretence to feebleness and sin.
Say not that Caesar was victorious, With toil and strife who stormed the House of Fame In other sense this youth was glorious, Himself a kingdom whereso'eer he came.
No strength went out to get him victory, When all was income of its own accord; For where he went none other was to see, But all were parcel of their noble lord.
He forayed like the subtle haze of summer, That stilly shows fresh landscapes to our eyes, And revolutions works without a murmur, Or rustling of a leaf beneath the skies.
So was I taken unwares by this, I quite...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau's Watershed Season As A Poet: The Hidden Fruits of the Summer and Fall of 1841,” in Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Myerson, University of Virginia Press, 1990, pp. 49-68.
[In the following essay, Witherell maintains that the group of interrelated poems Thoreau composed in the summer and fall of 1841 provide an important example of the role of poetry in his development as a writer.]
The assessment of Thoreau's poetic talent as a minor one is so widely shared and so obviously correct that critics and biographers generally treat his poetry in relation to some larger issue in his life or work. Although many explications of individual poems have been published, Thoreau's career as a poet has attracted only scant attention, and only two editions have been devoted to the poetry: Henry S. Salt and Frank B. Sanborn's selected Poems of Nature in 1895 and Carl Bode's Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau in 1943, with an enlarged edition in 1964.2 Because of the status of poetry in Thoreau's work, there has been no compelling reason to undertake another complete study. Since the Thoreau Edition was established in 1966 to produce new editions of all of Thoreau's writings, however, information about the poetry has been accumulating: manuscripts have surfaced for poems that have been known only in printed versions, and several new poems have been...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau as Poet,” in The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, edited by Joel Myerson, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 57-70.
[In the following essay, Witherell finds that Thoreau's poems are mainly of interest for what they tell us about Thoreau's life and his development as an artist.]
In the Transcendentalist view, especially as articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The Poet” and in Nature, the poet's responsibility is essentially religious—by a finer organization, a greater sensitivity to truth and beauty, the poet perceives and interprets the eternal realm that stands behind the apparent reality of the material world. Thoreau aspired to this sacred and powerful vocation at least from the time he began keeping his Journal in October 1837. Emerson indicates that poetry is defined by the strength of its internal source rather than by the regularity of its external form,1 but as a young man just beginning to explore the shape of his literary vocation, Thoreau, with Emerson's encouragement, was a dedicated writer of verse.
Thoreau's poetry is for the most part unremarkable in its subject and its form, and it suffers in comparison with even the quotidian prose of the Journal. In the poems, Thoreau often uses images provided by natural phenomena in and around Concord, and he applies the high standards of his idealism to...
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Canby, Henry Seidel. Thoreau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1939, 508 p.
Early, important critical biography of Thoreau emphasizing Thoreau’s importance as a social critic and creative thinker.
Channing, William Ellery. Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist. New York: Biblio and Tannen, 1966, 397 p.
Sympathetic biography written by one of Thoreau's best friends praising his imagination, humor, love of nature, and moral conviction.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, 502 p.
Meticulously documented biography by an eminent Thoreau scholar that portrays the artist as a remarkable man with elements of the earthly and the sublime.
Harding, Walter, and Michael Meyer. The New Thoreau Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1980, 238 p.
Includes an overview of Thoreau's life and discussions of his sources, ideas, art, and reputation.
Additional coverage of Thoreau’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Dictionary of American Literary Biography; Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 1; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British;...
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